He started as a 14-year-old by creating a graphic design company called ASH Works for Computer Arts. Now, Abdulsalam Haykal is CEO of Transtek, a Syrian software company whose main product is Compass ERP, and Haykal Media, which grew from a team of three that put together a bulletin to a publisher of several magazines and online sites. He was also recently made head of the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association (SYEA).
What are the key barriers to entrepreneurial development in the Middle East right now?
I think it’s the perception of the lack of space to be innovative and competitive. That leads to a state of acquired helplessness. The Arab population is the victim of a culture of dependence that made Arab youth stick to the senseless pendulum swings of securing a job at home or leaving their countries in search of one. Success stories like Aramex and Maktoob are stripped of much of their educational and inspirational edge because they seem to be remote exceptions. That mindset is the product of schools, universities and family protection, but I feel change is happening. Governments, policy makers and NGOs have a big role to play, and so do entrepreneurs and businesses. The tipping point is not far away, but we have to be persistent and believe in ourselves.
How much of successful enterprise creation is down to access to funding?
No enterprise can be created without some sort of seed funding. But most of the time when I speak to Arab entrepreneurs that identify funding as the number one obstacle, they don’t have an original idea or a well-thought out project. A good entrepreneur with the right set of skills will be able to get funding. Needless to say, it’s a lot easier in countries where entrepreneurship is thriving and where exit strategies are clearer. I never actually felt seed funding was the problem; it’s mostly financing growth and expansion. The good news is a renewed culture of venture capital and angel investing is emerging in the Arab World and matching exciting innovations presented by Arab entrepreneurs.
There is a long tradition of entrepreneurship in the Arab World, and Syria in particular. How important is it to revive it?
I don’t think entrepreneurship in the Arab World and Syria ever stopped – but it was severely challenged by political and economic systems that created a welfare state without having the wealth to do it. Even if a country is naturally resourceful, what insures sustainability of wealth and growth is the constant creation of value and opportunity. Our region needs to embrace innovation in areas where we have a competitive advantage. That starts from academic freedom at schools and universities to creating an ecosystem that rewards innovation. You can’t have 60 per cent of the population under the age of 24 becoming a curse, not an advantage.
If you had the power to introduce one policy to boost entrepreneurship in Syria in an instant, what would it be?
A laissez faire policy and a deregulatory approach. This would prevent the “hidden enterprise” culture. Syria is a fascinating place, and many of the Syrian entrepreneurs are truly inspiring. And there is a window of opportunity to unleash this huge potential.
What key piece of advice would you give to other Middle Eastern entrepreneurs?
The Sufi scholar Jalaluddin Rumi once said: “You were born with wings. Why prefer to crawl through life?” Fear makes you crawl. It’s easier said than done, but what makes a great entrepreneur is taking a step without feet. When you start by blaming yourself and not other people or circumstances, the solution is at your fingertips. Stick to positive thinking and stay focused on your goal, and your world and that of the people around you will never be the same again. Buddha said: “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Regardless of your belief, believe Buddha when he says that!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Explorer, Aramex's thought-leadership magazine that investigates issues critical to businesses, communities and the planet.